Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Dignity of Literacy

HE knocked on the door of my supply-closet-classroom, then entered hesitantly, bringing the sunlight from the hall in with him. His voice was soft, his appearance immaculate in his white janitor shirt with North Senior High's insignia. The skin on his face, belying his 57 years, was smooth and contrasted strikingly with that on his hands, rough as the red oak's bark. I knew little about my new student that first day, but over the next two years I would come to know him well. I would learn every line of his large, gnarled hands with their thick fingers, which painstakingly moved from word to word as he read for me. Our work together would build a friendship and construct unique passageways: for Wardell, open doors; for me, windows into a culture about which I was unaware.

Wardell grew up on a sharecropper's farm in Arkansas, where hard work was the ethic and education considered unessential. The nearest school was six miles distant; transportation was Ollie, a red mule too small to work the fields. But Ollie was also too small to carry three children: Wardell, his sister, and his brother. The three piled onto Ollie's back one winter day, forged to and from the school in heavy snow, and decided never to head down that road again.

About these ads

Each spring, Wardell and his family planted cotton. Summer they cultivated the fields. Fall, at 50 cents a day, they picked from sunup to sundown, until their fingers swelled and bled, and they wrapped them in cloth to keep on picking. Winter they plowed the old stubble under. Too poor for shoes, Wardell rode his mule to the fields with his feet tucked under him for warmth.

``Mama Mattie,'' Wardell's mother, had a family Bible, filled with beautiful pictures of oddly-dressed people and strange symbols meaning nothing to Wardell. Mama Mattie could read a little, and occasionally she read her Bible. But the god the family followed was Constant Toil, and the voice they heeded was often the whisperings of folk tradition. They saw ghosts in the woods at night.

When he was seven, Wardell suspected a spirit had grabbed his father. ``From the time I was about 11,'' he told me, ``I was husband and daddy, as well as child. Nobody can know how hard it was.'' He didn't see his father again until he was 15, when a hauntingly familiar face greeted him in the kitchen one noontime. Not long after, Wardell saw two white men kill his father. He never learned why.

Wardell's story continued to come to me in bits and pieces during our lessons. Like scraps from his mother's dress, his life had once been clean, simply cut, brightly hued. Later, it became tattered from worldly contact. Wardell took to excessive drinking and womanizing ... unhappy love affairs ... fighting and violence ... a fierce temper ... jobs upon jobs.

Wardell worked in a metals factory. Unable to read, he cultivated listening. He planted procedures and workers' times in memory and harvested increased responsibility. ``My boss'd read me next day's schedule, and I'd know it,'' he told me. ``Before long, I was foreman of that factory.''

He drove an 18-wheeler cross-country for 17 years. Since he could make out only STOP signs, he asked directions, then memorized the routes from landmarks. Illiteracy was not a shameful thing to Wardell; it was an unquestioned part of his life.

TEN years ago, Wardell became interested in religion - his personal ``fillfullment of the Holy Ghost'' - through the Pentecostal Church. He loved what he heard in Sunday sermons, and Bible verses were committed to memory as readily as work schedules and truck routes. What he absorbed beneath the stained glass windows imbued his life with a richness before unimagined. ``Some folks want to be important and well-to-do, Miss Janet. All I want to be is a true child of God.

About these ads

``My flesh twinkles on my bones, just thinking about God,'' he would say. His faith sustained him when, blinded and paralyzed by a stroke, Wardell was told by doctors he'd never walk again. He called on his newfound God day and night, ready to obey. He said when God told him to leave his bed, he did, walking and stumbling some eight miles - getting lost over and over again - praying until he found his way home. The book of Isaiah spoke to his heart: ``And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it; when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.''

When Wardell recovered, he found a high school janitor position. As he made his daily rounds at the school - sweeping floors, washing walls, erasing blackboards - a yearning tugged inside him. One day, a student's mother saw him struggling to read the tiny Bible he always keeps in his breast pocket and referred him to the Adult Learning Center nearby. At age 54, Wardell stepped into school as a student for the second time in his life.

``I had the shakes that day,'' he told me, ``but God gave me the holy boldness, and I came.'' He told the center's supervisor, ``Reading the Bible is the one thing in life I want to do.''

I had been working as a volunteer Laubach literacy tutor a year when Wardell became my student. The four-book system we used was developed by Dr. Frank Laubach, a Congregational missionary, to teach adults in the Philippines to read and write.

FROM our literacy council, I learned of three small Laubach books for new readers on Biblical stories, with correlative passages in the Bible. I invested in these for Wardell, plus a paperback Bible, which we would highlight in yellow as verses were learned. It wasn't long before that paperback Bible poured out sunshine when opened! We decided to alternate our lessons between the Bible study and the regular Laubach series. We also worked on writing. Wardell's pace never quickened the whole time we were together, yet the results grew more beautiful. Each letter, proclaiming the pride of its renderer, stood straight and tall.

Teaching Wardell was not all victories. There were frustrating days when he'd learn a new word in one line only to forget it in the next. Which, what, who were difficult to differentiate, as were this, that, then, there. He'd sigh and shake his head or rise up the conquering warrior, word in hand. ``You never dis-encourage me,'' he would say ``and as long as you and the Lord stick with me, I won't give up.''

Conquests came, brave and hard earned. Removing his glasses to dab at his eyes, Wardell reported one day that he had stood in his church that past Sunday to read Psalm 121, slowly but flawlessly. ``Were you scared?'' I queried. ``No, Miss Janet, I already told you about the holy boldness!'' A lesson in one of the Laubach books teaches how to follow a recipe on an instant potato box. Wardell read it with great interest. Telling me that he needed to get home to check something, he left class early that day. Only later did I learn that he couldn't wait to peruse the directions on his oatmeal carton. Quickly, he gathered his wife's measuring spoons and cups and set to work. ``When I made oatmeal before, you almost needed a knife to cut it,'' he reported. ``This time I didn't taste the oats or the water, only the food.''

On the shirttails of Wardell's successes rode dignity. North Senior High's principal noticed an increasing self-confidence and self-awareness as Wardell learned to read and write. North Senior High's teachers asked to see his notebooks and complimented his work. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter interviewed Wardell.

One Christmas vacation, I realized it would benefit Wardell to have a new tutor, one with fresh inspiration. We had been together more than two years, and his progress was not as rapid as it once was. This realization smoldered in my thought several days, then flared into a mighty struggle for me, for how could I let this student, this unique friend, go?

We discussed a change. I explained to Wardell that I considered him ready to ``graduate'' to a new tutor. ``Every student changes teachers,'' I reasoned.

Wardell's brows furrowed in puzzlement, his eyes filled. Over the two years, Wardell had quietly, unobtrusively handed me those gifts teachers value the most - his victories, large and small. This day he gave me the gift carried on words from heart to heart, a compliment. ``There's no teacher like you, Miss Janet.''

We decided to continue working together through January, while the center searched for Wardell's next tutor.

Wardell arrived early for our final class. ``I can't read, Miss Janet, not today,'' he said, as he removed his coat and fitted it to the back of his chair. ``My head is just too full.''

PRESSING for attention, sadness crept into our little room. I reached for his Bible and turned to I Kings, to where Elijah was sustained by the angel, who gave him water and meat for his journey. ``Come on, let's read together then,'' I said, and the lesson took on normalcy.

``And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him ... '' We read on. ``And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee ... '' As we read, it occurred to me that some angel had accompanied Wardell on his journey, too - had kept him safe on the farm, watched over him during his hard years, nudged him into his church, brought him to the Learning Center.

``You have an angel, too, Wardell, who will keep on taking care of you. I know it,'' I said. He nodded.

``You too, Miss Janet,'' he replied. He squeezed my arm, slipped into his jacket, picked up his case. ``Don't take me off your heart.'' Wardell was gone. I left my room to look out the window. The winter sky was heavy, and a light snow was falling.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.